Jason Wu, designer for Michelle Obama and others, reflects on his brand’s 10th anniversary
Anniversary story interviews often open with one predictable question: “Can you believe it’s been X number of years?”
It was no different for Jason Wu’s 10-year, his answer to the question a variation on the standard “no, but yes” response. In his case, for a great number of people, it probably seems more like Wu has been around for eight years, since his name was propelled out of the insular world of fashion and into the masses on Jan. 20, 2009, when Michelle Obama wore his white chiffon gown to her husband’s first inauguration.
At the time, it was billed as the coronation of a neophyte. “‘Oh, he started two days before and then she wore him and his career was made,’” said Wu, summarizing the lore into which the facts morphed.
The truth is, Wu started his line in 2007, as a 24-year-old Parsons alum from Taiwan via Vancouver with a mature aesthetic based on polished glamour and cocktail dressing. Dressing the First Lady for her opening night provided Wu with the kind of aura and worldwide brand exposure that money can’t buy, but it didn’t keep the lights on for the next eight years. Wu did that by himself. So much more has happened in his business than dressing Obama (It stands to note that she wore his designs for the past three presidential inaugurations, including her farewell from the White House last month).
Wu never really marketed Obama. He played it cool, respectfully, demurring in interviews. “With respect of her being first lady, I just didn’t think it was appropriate to handle it like dressing a celebrity,” he said.
Such an old-fashioned elegant state of mind is incredibly rare in this selfie/self-promotion-at-all-costs age. But it’s emblematic of how Wu has approached his business, which is at a turning point, not only because of his anniversary but also the potential game-changers he has set in place recently. They include the introduction of a sibling line called Grey Jason Wu last year, eyewear with Eponym and the forthcoming launch of his first fragrance.
Wu emerged on the scene at a time when the industry was in the mood to anoint newbies. Fashion is always hungry for new blood, but whatever was in the air 10 years ago, there was a real groundswell of support for young designers. Many of Wu’s peers were edgy, indie darlings, while his aesthetic was more straight-laced. One of his fondest memories of the early days was the young designer Summer Camp shoot Bruce Weber did for W magazine’s July 2008 issue, for which Alexander Wang, Christophe Decarnin (who reestablished Balmain), Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, Gareth Pugh, Jeremy Laing and Swaim and Christina Hutson of Obedient Sons, among others, spent a few days at The Standard Hotel in Miami for a shoot. For the casting, there was Kate Moss, Lara Stone, Daria Werbowy and a troop of male models.
Wu had food poisoning but he remembers the energy. In one photo, he sits cradled in the lap of a buff blond boy.
“That was just such a moment,” he said. “It was all these young people and it wasn’t just American designers. Everyone was different…I didn’t know who anyone was, and I don’t think anyone knew who I was either, and that was way before any of the inauguration happened. It was just such a big opportunity. I think a lot of things followed after that — people really took notice, but to me it was kind of very much a time when there was this new generation coming up in fashion, and I was really happy to be a part of that.”
Some of his fellow summer campers are no longer in business; some have struggled to scale. Wu has kept his brand humming along at a steady clip, working tirelessly on his own line while keeping so many other irons in the fire, it’s difficult to keep track. He designs four different lines. There’s Jason Wu, Grey Jason Wu, Hugo Boss Women’s — where he’s been creative director for three years — and Fila, where he designs men’s and women’s capsule collections that are specifically for the Asian market. Along the way, he’s also engaged in collaborations, including with Target Corp., the Woolmark Co., Nest candles, Caudalie, Lancôme, Melissa Shoes, Cadillac, Pantone and Brizo.
They’re not as random as they sound. All fall within the orbit of Wu’s personal interests. “Homemaking is my favorite thing to do,” he said. “I like to decorate and I like to cook. That’s like literally my pastime. That’s what I’m interested in. Anything in the home, I’m interested in, and anything food-related, I’m interested in it.”
For example, Brizo, one of his earlier partnerships, came along through a friend. The luxury faucet company was looking to support fashion. They underwrote his shows in the beginning, then asked him to design a faucet. He came up with a matte black handle-less design, which became a bestseller for Brizo. All of the faucets in Wu’s home are from the collaboration. “I was like, well I’m making it, I have to want to use it, too.”
The number of collaborations and moonlighting gigs Wu’s taken on speak to his intense work ethic.
“I run myself as an enterprise,” said Wu. “I have all these projects — my label is my most personal project, of course, but it’s part of what I do. That’s how I’ve always done my business.”
He’s always been enterprising. He started working as a teenager designing dolls — their clothes, hair and makeup — for Integrity Toys Inc. On weekends he would take the train into Manhattan from Connecticut, where he attended the Loomis Chaffee School, to work at the company’s office in the Flatiron District. Eventually he became a partner. Dolls were where his fashion education began. He’d loved playing with them as a child and begged his mother to get him a sewing machine to make doll clothes. But his designs were not kid’s stuff. One doll wore a hand-embroidered, boned corset, a garter belt, stilettos and a netted eye mask. Through Integrity, he traveled to China to work in the manufacturing side of things. Earnings from the gig financed his collection in the beginning.
Wu likes to say that his career trajectory is somewhat working in reverse. By that, he means that when he started his brand, he had very little experience but a ton of drive to figure it out on his own rather than apprentice for an established designer, learning from a company with infrastructure. “Back then, I was a 24-year-old student out of school, and didn’t know anything about the industry, really. I’d done some internships, but I just thought somehow, you know what, I could do it. That kind of naïveté was quite beneficial at the time.” The economy was terrible, yet he powered through. The jobs at Boss, Fila, working with Target, etc., have given him a window into working for a big company, where he wasn’t the boss.
Besides demonstrating his industriousness, the doll business — in which Wu is still tangentially involved (it’s in the same building as his 35th Street studio is) — speaks to another key part of his brand: He has never been obsessed with being cool. No little boy with a doll obsession can be. It has been a boon for him.
Wu has never been a party boy. You won’t find him embracing the marijuana trend or delving into streetwear. There were a few seasons when he overtly flexed a new “sexy” adult muscle, right around the time he turned 30, but glamour and elegance — and increasingly daywear — are his bread and butter. It’s the kind of thing that’s often described as “uptown.” Wu does it well, with a modern eye and a consistent hand.
That focus was big part of what made Gary Wassner approach Wu as his first investment when he launched InterLuxe Holdings and took a majority in the designer’s business in 2014. Wassner knows from the upstart market. He works with hundreds of fledgling designers — and the big ones, too — through his factoring firm Hilldun Corp. Wu retained its services once he figured out it existed. Neiman Marcus mistakenly sent a check for Wu to Hilldun, assuming that he worked with the firm. “That’s how I met Gary,” said Wu.
“If you look back, we’ve gone through a number of waves of talent,” said Wassner. “He was one of the five to watch and he was one of the five who survived and endured at that time. He really did stand out. He was classic. He had a real sense of enduring fashion. And it was young. It wasn’t old.”
Interluxe is pushing Wu to the next level, stretching into new categories. The collection has been primarily apparel-driven. Handbags were launched in 2011. Grey, which is more casual with pieces priced mostly under $1,000, was a big move for the company. “It’s for girls in their 30s who want to buy something that they can keep for a long time,” said Wu. “They can’t afford Jason Wu, but don’t really want to live in Zara anymore.”
While he’s worked to lower the entry price point of his main collection, he felt that blending Grey into the designer line was the wrong move. Grey is “a category we will sell volume in.”
On the horizon is the fragrance, done through a license with Parlux Ltd., to be unveiled at Wu’s fall show at the St. Regis Feb. 10. “Fragrance is my biggest passion project, that’s the one thing I really, really, really wanted to do. If you look at my list of collaborations, half of them are beauty because I love beauty.” He gets it from his mother, whose makeup he would play with. “She’s a dressy girl,” said Wu. “She always got her hair blown dry every week, that kind of girl.”
His father, on the other hand, works in agriculture, producing and distributing food in Taiwan. “There’s a sculpture of a pig when you go into his office in marble,” said Wu.
Then there’s retail. Wu did not rush to open his own store. He’s really taken his time on that front. He opened his first in-store shop at Saks Fifth Avenue’s New York flagship last year and says a store of his own is definitely on the short-term agenda, potentially within the next year.
“I just didn’t feel like I wanted to [open a store] when a lot of my peers did it a few years ago,” said Wu. “I just feel like, we’re going to build it one step at a time. I’m going to start with concessions within department stores, get those done, and then really learn from those experiences. Then build my store. That’s just been the way I’ve operated. I’m actually really happy, because the retail environment has changed completely, and I think having a shop no longer means the traditional way of having a shop.” In the interim, he’s ramped up his own digital channels and e-commerce. He speaks, too, of the need for retail to be a real experience.
Considering all that Wu is working on, it’s no wonder he’s taken his expansion slow. As the interview approaches the hour mark, his phone starts buzzing. It’s Hugo Boss wondering when he’ll arrive at the campaign being shot at that very moment in Brooklyn. “I did all the hair and makeup tests, and all the pre-shoots yesterday. There’s a fitting happening now,” said Wu. “I’ll come back from Brooklyn at 7 and work until 9:30, 10.”
His husband, Gustavo Rangel, who is Wu’s chief brand officer, looms outside his office door. “He manages me and basically everything I do,” the designer said.
Does he see himself doing so much — Boss, Fila, etc. — long term?
“I’m 34, this is the time to do it,” said Wu. “Eventually I want to do less, for sure. But if you want to do what you want to do, with no regrets, this is the time to do it.” With that, he’s off to Brooklyn.
Launch Gallery: The Long Game: Jason Wu’s 10th Anniversary